In the 1920s few households had telephones, especially in the country. There existed no national weather broadcasting system, no emergency sirens, and many rural families were still using horse and wagon to get around. Brewing in the sky on the afternoon of March 18th, 1925 was a storm so powerful that it would send a monster tornado ripping across 3 states while the surrounding states were affected by competing tornado cells.
The truly crazy thing is that even if an alert system had been in place, the word “tornado” was banned from use by weather professionals at the time!
The Tragic Tri-state Tornado
Some described it as a wall of destruction for it was so large that it didn’t even look like a funnel from afar. The disaster came to be known as the Tri-state Tornado, as it tore through Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. The length of the tornado’s path was an incredible 219 miles long.
The deadliest tornado of all time in US, 695 people lost their lives that day. A further 2,000 were injured and around 15,000 homes were destroyed in 19 communities affected. At least 5 towns were 90% destroyed or more. If there had been a classification for tornados back then it has been speculated that it would have been an F-5, the highest damage level a tornado can have.
The name “Tri-state Tornado” implies that the damage was limited to 3 states, but in fact Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri were just where the most damages were concentrated. Kentucky, Kansas, Alabama, and Tennessee were also hit with tornados that awful day.
The disaster is also called the Ti-state Tornado Outbreak since there were a number of other tornados in surrounding states at the same time. In all the areas affected by tornados that day, an estimated 2,300 injuries occurred that day. 29 people in Tennessee and 19 in Kentucky were killed by tornados in the Outbreak.
Why Was the Word “Tornado” Banned at the Time?
At the time the word “tornado” had been banned since 1887 by the Army Signal Corps since they had no means of warning people or predicting the path or severity of tornados. The thought was that using the term only served to rile the public into a frenzy, igniting panic among the helpless in a tornado’s path. The term wasn’t even allowed to be used by forecasters in public, let alone when referencing potential storms.
It wouldn’t be until 20 years after the Tri-state Tornado Outbreak that any means of officially forecasting, spotting, and warning about tornados was in effect. But, 1925 marks the year that an informal network of tornado spotters formed, attempting to warn folks so this sort of loss of life would not happen again.
The storms also caused severe flooding and fires which meant that many towns were devastated. What’s worse is that many towns were yet not done rebuilding when the stock market crashed in 1929, leaving them in the lurch until after World War II was over.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 30 years after the horrible day that storm chasing began to catch on a hobby.